Editorials

The Mana Curve – Magic: The Gathering for Casual Players

Issue 1: Preparing for your first local tournament

Do you own ten thousand cards and six different playmats? Have you had at least one of your decks banned in your local meta? Can you explain the difference between hexproof and shroud in five words or less? When you coin alternate pronunciations for your favorite cards, do they stick? (“Atraxia”, “Kaala”, “Beya”)

Are you the most interesting Magic: The Gathering player in the world?

Then this column is not for you!

With more than seventeen bazillion cards in print, the sheer volume of information about Magic: The Gathering (M:TG) available online is intimidating to casual players. This regular column aims to boil down the critical elements of gameplay and help give novice players the courage to head to the local gaming store and sit down for a weekly tournament. In the next several months you’ll get frank answers to important questions like:

Is a sideboard really that useful?

What’s the matter with trying to “win more?”

Liliana of the Veil – I love the art but what’s the big frickin’ deal?

I’m old skool, having first played Magic in the summer of 1994. I bought two starter decks and two booster packs for a total of 150 cards. I was set for life. Then Magic got so popular that people I knew were spending wads of cash buying singles. Reminiscing about those times, a friend of mine said, “I remember when I saw (a mutual friend) buying a Magic card. I don’t recall the exact price but it was over $100. I thought he was crazy. It was a Black Lotus!” Suddenly overmatched and faced with the choice of blowing my student loans on Magic cards or beer for the weekend, I chose beer.

I have paid the price for my lack of vision, but hey, at least I’m not the idiot running Yahoo into the ground for the past two decades:

$4.6 billion – they lose at life! Anyway…

I’m kicking myself now, but in the mid-nineties the idea of dropping upwards of $50 or more to build a competitive 40-card deck (before the rule change to 60) seemed absurd. Reinforcing that idea was the fact that we used to play for ante because it was in the original rules until someone realized it was the same as gambling (duh!).

Long-story-short I have a real job now and can afford both beer and Magic cards. I’m making up for lost time and I have a good idea of what people who find themselves in similar positions – either new to the game or returning after years in the wilderness – need to know to have the confidence to talk shop with fellow enthusiasts.

As part of the standard flow of this column I’ll dedicate space to explain the lexicon of the game. This first foray will highlight the most common deck archetypes, with common definitions for Aggro, Control, MidRange, and Combo. In subsequent columns I will dig deeper into these concepts.

Aggro is everyone’s first deck. Short for aggressive, the idea is to use creatures or burn (direct damage) spells to do lethal damage in as few turns as possible. Aggro can be a satisfying and relatively straightforward approach. With each turn your board state is more menacing, putting increasing pressure on your opponent. His life total gets smaller by chunks while you fend off feeble attempts to counterattack.

Almost every card in the game can be utilized to facilitate an aggro strategy, but there are some key drivers. The mana curve is not only the clever title of this column, it also represents the ability of your deck to efficiently manage resources and play more powerful cards with every land that enters the battlefield on your side. On turn one you want a meaningful one-drop (converted mana cost = 1), and on turn three you want to play at least a three-drop and so forth. Build an aggro deck with nothing but one and two-drops and you will quickly run out of cards in hand. This is an oversimplification, and there are exceptions to the strategy, but as a general rule your threats should keep up with your available mana.

Control seeks to slow the game down using cards like Counterspell, Doom Blade, Ghost Quarter, and Wrath of God to eliminate threats. If your opponent can’t cast spells and doesn’t have any creatures on the battlefield, you will eventually win (usually). Blue is the color most often associated with control strategies, although all colors feature at least some control spells. Counterspell is the quintessential control card; for two blue mana your opponent’s spell fizzles. A set of four of these in your deck can disrupt and frustrate aggro and completely defeat a game winning combo. Spells like Doom Blade and Wrath of God destroy creatures (removal / hate) and Ghost Quarter targets non-basic lands. There are hundreds of similar cards, many with situational utility, and therein lies the complexity of playing control. Knowing when to play your counter and removal is critical to marginalizing an opponent’s threat.

For your money, control can be a budget-friendly way to build a competitive deck. Counter and removal spells are usually of common or uncommon rarity, so you’ll likely find several interspersed in new set packs or for cheap on the secondary market.

I have found that playing control in a local tournament setting makes for a great opportunity to learn about other decks. Extending the game gives you a chance to watch your opponent play, to learn how they approach deck construction, how they play colors and combos and how they respond to what you’re doing. Control can be frustrating to play against. I don’t recommend busting out your stingiest control deck for casual play, but if the goal is to win in a tournament setting, control gives you a puncher’s chance even against expensive, well-piloted decks.

MidRange attempts to stifle the opponent early while setting up an insurmountable win condition (win-con). By its nature midrange offers versatility but can also rely on key cards which may be more expensive to both play and acquire. From the perspective of a casual player, it is very easy to make a poor midrange deck and then play it poorly. If you copy a decklist online it will still take practice to pilot effectively and consistently.

Although midrange shares the strengths of the other archetypes it also shares in the weaknesses. You need to manage resources with maximum efficiency to protect your early game setup, and then leave mana open or risk disruption of your strategy. On the other hand, you will have cards in the deck to deal with a variety of threats from your opponent. Midrange often tries to accelerate mana production, referred to as “ramp,” and to draw or gain access to more than one card per turn to gain “card advantage.”

Combo is the ultimate risk-reward strategy. The combo player relies on two or three critical cards to execute an instant-win or inevitable win. The rest of the deck is designed to produce and play those key cards as quickly as possible. There are many famous combos which can create infinite turns, infinite life, and infinite damage or bring out a game-finishing creature like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. The challenge is to make the deck play consistently, which often requires both ramp and card advantage.

Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) uses the banned card list to keep some game-breaking combos out of sanctioned tournament play. Such cards are fair in casual play however, and you can amaze and confound your friends when you crush them under a billion 1/1 creature tokens.

There are hybrid strategies in every combination and the most useful strategies like ramp and card advantage are consistent threads in almost every deck type.

Before you assemble your best aggro deck and head down to the gaming store on a Friday night you need to know what format to prepare for. 90% of the cards ever printed will get you disqualified at a Standard event. Here’s the quick and dirty:

Standard: A general rule of thumb is that Standard includes new cards released over the prior 36 months, excluding reprints. WoTC produces two new editions each year, in the spring and fall, and the Standard format cycles with the fall release. Standard is the most accessible format because everyone has an equal opportunity to acquire new cards.

Modern: Includes all new cards produced as of 8th Edition from 2003. Several cards printed prior to 8th ed. are exceedingly powerful, and many were printed only in Alpha and Beta, making those cards extremely rare and valuable to collectors. The aforementioned Black Lotus is the most famous card in all of Magic, with copies selling for thousands of dollars on the secondary market. WoTC protects the collectability of these cards on the “Reserved List,” and all cards on the Reserved List were printed pre-Modern.

Legacy: Almost every card ever made is allowed in the Legacy format, with some notable exceptions. Cards which are obviously overpowered (broken) are banned in Legacy to protect tournament play. Consider cards that give you free mana with no drawbacks, like the Moxes, or cheap extra turns, like Time Walk, or let your search your library for any card and put it into your hand, such as Demonic Tutor.

Vintage: Only a handful of cards are banned from this format, and those are either related to the illegal practice of ante or have an effect which does not have anything to do with the rules of the game. If memory serves, one of the first World Championships was won by a player who tore his copy of Falling Star into little pieces and sprinkled them onto his opponent’s creatures before combat. That’s an epic move but it goes against the spirit of the game.

Cards with silver or gold borders are also banned in Vintage. Vintage does have a noteworthy Restricted list, identifying very powerful cards like Necropotence, Strip Mine, Wheel of Fortune and others. A deck can only have one copy of any restricted card. Legacy and Vintage can be very expensive formats to break into when trying to build competitive decks. Many of the best cards go for $50 or more on the secondary market.

There is also Constructed Block format and all the casual formats. Future columns will dig deeper into the most popular formats and highlight specific cards, combos, and decks.

By now you’re probably thinking, “I’m tired of waxing cars and painting fences! I want to learn karate and trash bozos!”

Ok, Daniel-san, here’s our first budget-friendly tournament deck:

Legacy Mono-White Aggro

Creatures

4 Mardu Woe-Reaper – 2 Power / 1 Toughness and a gain life for one mana! Excellent 1-drop $.25 ea

4 Soldier of the Pantheon – 2/1 Protection from multicolored and gain life. Excellent 1-drop $.25 ea

4 Accorder Paladin – 3/1 that gives +1 power to all other attacking creatures. Great 2-drop $.25 ea

4 Seeker of the Way – 2/2 with Prowess (+1/+1 for each noncreature spell you cast) + Lifelink $.25 ea

4 Thalia’s Lieutenant – Gives your human creatures +1/+1. Solid card in this deck! 2-drop $2.50 ea

4 Abzan Falconer – 2/3 and give creatures Flying, 3-drop $.25 ea

4 Daru Warchief – 2/3 and give every Soldier creature +1/+2 and 1 CMC less to play, 4-drop $1.50 ea

4 Rhox Pikemaster – 3/3 and gives all Soldiers First Strike, 4-drop $.25 ea

Other Spells

4 Unified Strike – 1 CMC for cheap, effective removal of opponent’s creatures $.25 ea

2 Great Teacher’s Decree – 4 CMC to give all your creatures +2/+1 in consecutive turns $.25 ea

2 Mobilization – 3 CMC to give all Soldiers Vigilance (attacking does not cause them to tap) $.50 ea

Lands

20 Plains $.01 ea

The mana curve is typical for Mono-White Human Soldier Aggro. By turn 4 you’ll be creating creature tokens via Mobilization and perhaps keeping an extra Plains open to disrupt your opponent with a Unified Strike.

That’s a Legacy deck for less than $25, which is dirt cheap for the format. You could sub out the Thalia’s Lieutenant for a set of Cavalry Pegasus to trade the +1/+1 counters for flying when attacking, and you could also sub out the Warchiefs and add four Brave the Elements (1 CMC) to make all of your creatures effectively unblockable or indestructible for the turn. That would bring the total cost of the deck under $10! Where do I get all these cards, you ask? Amazon is a thing, and I also frequent Deckbox.org, StarCityGames, and even eBay. Don’t forget your local gaming store!

Will this deck be competitive in a serious Legacy tournament? No, but at your local gaming store you’re going to match up against a wide variety of decks. This is a sturdy little aggro deck with plenty of synergy and cheap removal to eliminate your opponent’s biggest threats as they come out. The thing to remember is this deck is Legacy and not Standard-legal.

Alright, ready for your first local tournament? You are going to be nervous. The first time that big combo shows up in your hand will be like Christmas. Keep your cool, be gracious in victory and defeat, and learn everything you can from your fellow players. If you’re lucky, the group will be close knit and you can make lifelong friends and even share cards. That’s the coolest thing about my local group. Guys are happy to lend very expensive cards to friends, and even whole decks. That sense of community is a prize everyone wins just for signing up.

Mike is a journeyman musician, writer and amateur astronomer who makes a living as a data engineer in Port Angeles, WA. Mike is also a hopelessly obsessed but very marginal player of Magic: the Gathering.

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